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June 20, 2005

David Wootton revisits The Tempest at The Globe - and finds it even more brilliant than first time around

Posted by David Wootton

William Shakespeare's The Tempest
directed by Tim Carroll
Shakespeare's Globe, London
in repertory 6th May - 2nd October 2005

In his review for the Social Affairs Unit - Shakespeare performed as a miracle: Mark Rylance in The Tempest at the Globe - David Wootton, the University of York's Anniversary Professor of History, found that watching the Globe's production of The Tempest has the feeling of witnessing a miracle. David Wootton has now revisited this production - and found it even more brilliant than first time around.

I said I would revisit the Globe production of The Tempest, and I saw it again on June 16th. Last time I saw it a couple of days before the performance that was seen by the critics; what I saw this time was profoundly different from the play I saw on 11th May. Then there was something solemn and careful about the performers and the performance. The young women in biker jackets, for example, never smiled. I felt there was greatness in the production, but wasn't quite sure where it lay.

It should be said that on that occasion I was in the first balcony, and this time I was amongst the groundlings. It is astonishing what a difference this makes in the Globe. On this occasion I arrived fifteen minutes late. About half an hour into the performance a party of some fifty schoolchildren traipsed in with their teachers. After forty-five minutes there was still (as at all Globe productions) a small trickle of people leaving, having discovered they have no appetite for standing and watching Shakespeare. So I happen to know (because I looked at my watch) that we were fully forty-five minutes into the performance before, all of a sudden, the magic began. From that moment on the whole thing was so wonderful that it was positively distracting.

I found myself wondering if this was the best Shakespeare performance I had ever seen. (No, that was the RSC's Pericles at the Round House on one of its final nights – according to the critics the first nights were leaden, but the last nights were simply and completely out of this world.) If I could live moments of my life over again, which, apart from these, would they be? Why can't one make time stand still? I was reminded of Tony Blair saying (when the Good Friday agreement was signed) that he felt the hand of history on his shoulder. Mark Rylance, Edward Hogg, Alex Hassell had the hand of history on their shoulders on 16th June. I was there, I could see it.

The production is much more fit for groundlings than it was a month ago – coarser, raunchier, sexier, more graphic. The audience this time was much less knowledgeable, but full of teenagers who thrilled to every moment of sex and romance. At one point Trinkulo (Edward Hogg) emerges from a physical encounter with Caliban and stands on the stage picking pubic hairs out of his teeth. And the actors work the audience far more, touching them, kissing them, talking to them. At one point Edward Hogg, this time playing Miranda, asks Ferdinand "Do you love me?" Only he addresses the groundlings. Back came the reply, from a female voice, clear as a bell, and entirely serious, "Yes". It was typical of the mood of the night that Alex Hassell refused to come in on queue, leaving Hogg standing there exposed until he finally corpsed.

One thing that was clear is that the actors now love performing the play. The three silent dancers and the three endlessly vocal actors kept breaking into infectious grins, such fun were they having. A month ago they thought they could make this strange production work and they were determined to give it their best shot. Now they know they can enthral their audiences and capture their imaginations. They may be working, but goodness they're having fun.

If you can go to see it, then make sure you do. It's worth any journey. And buy the programme. It contains remarkable illustrations from Michael Maier's alchemical work Atlanta Fugiens of 1617, illustrations that (along with Noel Cobb's Prospero's Island) have inspired this production. Having bought the programme on this second visit I now know Tim Carroll directs – but the idea of the play being performed by three actors was (as I assumed) Mark Rylance's. I'm prepared to forgive Rylance his toying with the idea that Shakespeare was anyone but Shakespeare, and his infatuation with Jung. Truth is I'm prepared to forgive him almost anything, even leaving the Globe. If this isn't the best Shakespeare production I have ever seen, for Pericles at the Roundhouse was and always will be that, it was the finest bravura performance of ensemble acting I have ever watched. If there are tickets still available, one of them has my name on it…

David Wootton is Anniversary Professor of History, University of York.

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